Rascal Flatts delivers some curve balls in a trip back in time

The country juggernaut Rascal Flatts turns the clock back, not to Hank, Waylon or Merle, but to 1970

“You get your house back, you get your dog back, you get your best friend Jack back, when you play a country song backwards,” promised Rascal Flatts on Thursday at the Times Union Center. The country juggernaut did turn the clock back, not to Hank, Waylon or Merle, but to 1970s and 1980s arena rock. They hit their target in their fans’ nostalgia — a triumph of classic-rock durability and marketing over true country sincerity.

The core trio of singer Gary LeVox, bassist/singer Jay DeMarcus and guitarist/singer Joe Don Rooney started on a small stage at the rear of the jammed arena, their five-piece band rocking a fat groove on the main stage. A bridge carried the three to the stage as they wrapped up their opening number/mission statement “Me and My Gang.” They got good energy from the crowd in their first singalong in “Fast Cars and Freedom,” then showed off their main strength — big beefy ballads, slow but strong, that dominated their two-hour set — with “I Melt.”

DeMarcus delivered the first of many curve balls on Thursday with James Brown’s soul classic “I Feel Good,” and they returned to their own tunes while staying with an affirmative message in “My Wish,” springing from their own early dreams of stardom to wish everyone the fulfillment of their own dreams. Rooney’s solo guitar workout went to some strange places: the Guess Who’s “American Woman,” King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man,” the James Gang’s “Funk 49,” even the bombastic “New York, New York.”

Even after they returned to familiar ground with their big ballad “Feels Like Today,” the surprises weren’t over: The fiddler stepped forward for Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” Perhaps even more surprising, considering how perfunctorily LeVox often sang while paying too much attention to shaking hands with fans, was his towering vocal in “Bless the Broken Road,” his best singing in a spectacle that was way more show than performance. Case in point: the hymn-like “He Ain’t the Leavin’ Kind,” about the presence of God. A group of U.S. Marines marched onstage and stood at attention, arousing the already fired-up crowd in a deeply cringe-worthy moment for anyone who believes in the separation of church and state.

Kellie Pickler may not have won her round of American Idol but her crowd-pleasing opening set won the bouncy blonde singer some new fans. Accurate pitch, easy confidence, OK songs, the looks and charm of a star — she brought a lot to the stage in a small, barefooted package.

When she wandered to the front or edges of the stage, camera flashes lit up there like fireflies, and her women fans eagerly sang her best-known songs, and those that most emphatically put down misbehaving men, back at and with her. Loaded with hit singles, her star-time set had some reach and some depth, especially in “I Wonder,” questions for the mother who abandoned her. Her cover of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” was credibly real, and her sassy persona, of someone with no patience for errant guys, peaked in the defiant “Red High Heels.” When a well-prepared fan handed her one, she held it high, singing through a smile.

Categories: Life and Arts

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